Entertainment » Theatre

Byhalia, Mississippi

by Colleen Cottet
Monday Feb 1, 2016
Evan Linder and Liz Sharpe
Evan Linder and Liz Sharpe  

When I first heard of "Byhalia, Mississippi," I expected to find myself seeing a play that grappled with the racial tensions that are still prevalent in the American South. And indeed, those themes are abundant in this co-world premiere original work. But, in keeping with the style of Definition Theatre/The New Colony productions of the past, the heart of the story is ultimately that of the characters: funny, flawed, deeply and approachably human characters that promise to leave every audience member moved by their plights.

"Byhalia, Mississippi" is the original work of playwright Evan Linder, co-artistic director and founding member of The New Colony. The Chicago production is co-produced by Definition Theatre Company and directed by Definition Theatre Company founding artistic director Tyrone Phillips. The production is part of a larger world premiere, as parallel productions have debuted in Toronto, Memphis and Charleston, with staged reading in Birmingham, Boulder and Los Angeles.

In "Byhalia" we meet Laurel (Liz Sharpe), nine months pregnant and overdue. Her overbearing mother Celeste (Cecelia Wingate) has been staying with Laurel and Laurel's husband Jim (Evan Linder), hoping to help welcome her grandchild into the world but really only serving to vex them both. We come to know that Jim, raised in the small town of Byhalia, had an affair after bringing Laurel to his hometown, and is currently under-employed. Celeste insists that Laurel's life could be so much better, and there are moments, however brief, that it seems that Laurel may think the same.

What is clear is that Jim does love his wife, and is as excited and endearingly nervous as any expectant father could be. Laurel has striven to forgive her husband, and the couple, whose banter shows just how bonded they remain, make plans to name their baby and raise him/her in Byhalia.

And so Laurel gives birth, but the child, a son, is black. (Both Laurel and Jim are white). The news of Laurel's hidden betrayal sends Jim into an emotional tailspin, and his initial reaction is to rail against his childhood best friend Karl (Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr), who happens to be black. Lauren reveals that it is her never-seen boss with whom she had an affair, not long after Jim had his.

Though their indiscretions are parallel, the fact that Laurel became pregnant from her affair, and that the resulting child is so obviously not Jim's, invites the harsh and unforgiving scrutiny of small town gossip. Celeste herself implores Laurel to get rid of the child, stating cruelly that raising a black son is a source of shame to the town and the family.

There is also the matter of the baby's natural father, who has a family of his own. Ayesha (Kiki Layne) enters the picture, a woman who has struggled for a sense of public decorum and is seeing it rattled with this evidence of her humiliation. The action plays out as Laurel vows to make a place for herself and her son in Byhalia, with or without the help of family and community.

"Byhalia, Mississippi" is a wonderful production, and Chicago is fortunate to have the opportunity to host part of its world premiere. Linder's characters and dialogue are very real and imminently approachable, and he and Phillips have brought together a strong group of professionals to give the scripts its life, including set designer John Wilson, who gives the actors a wonderfully earthy physical space to inhabit and that pulls the audience deftly into the world of Byhalia.

The actors in "Byhalia" are all very good, most notably Linder as Jim. Each nuance of Jim's journey-his struggle, his heartache, his reconciliation-are beautifully evident in his face and his stature. Though ultimately Jim's journey ends a little too neatly for my taste (call me a cynic, but I'm weary of happy endings), Linder's sincerity makes it completely believable. Sharpe also does a great job as Laurel, making her evolution from naïve expectant mother to strong-willed woman of the world wonderful to observe.

"Byhalia, Mississippi" runs through Feb. 14 at Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee in Chicago. For information or tickets, visit www.thenewcolony.org

Colleen Cottet is a freelance writer and playwright, having written for such diverse publications as American Teen, Veterinary Technician, and the Journal of Ordinary Thought. Her work has been performed at the Chicago Park District and About Women. She resides in Chicago.


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